Leadership Lessons from ex-Nuclear Submarine Commander and CIO

Tom Flanagan: ex-CIO of Amgen & MCI and US Naval Commander

Tom is one of the most storied IT executives of our time. In the military, he captained a nuclear submarine during the Cold War, briefed US presidents, and brokered nuclear treaties with North Korea. As a civilian, he was Chief Information Officer (CIO) at MCI and Amgen, and a Vice President at IBM. He is currently Chief Transformation Officer at ISSQUARED, Inc, one of INC 500’s fastest growing companies.

During our Pangea Perspectives session in September 2022, Tom delivered an inspiring speech on leadership, personal development, management, and technology. Here are three key leadership takeaways:

Treat everyone how you would want to be treated

What: My father was a junior enlisted in the army and I imagined him every time I interacted with one of my men. For example, in a non-extreme situation such as the Russians performing a ‘Crazy Ivan’ maneuver, I would ask the most junior member of the submarine what to do. If he gave the wrong answer, I would coach him until he got the right answer. The next day, the junior sailor would be telling all his shipmates how he safely navigated the submarine out of the sticky situation.

How: Treat everyone, no matter their position, with respect and dignity. Invest your time in people (i.e. know everyone’s name and domestic situation), always coach them to get to the right answer (unless it’s an extreme situation) and make everyone part of the solution.

Why: It’s easy to lead a group of people who feel valued: they will do their utmost to contribute to your mission.

Get angry, get over it, and make the most of it

What: As a junior naval officer, I volunteered to go to Naples, Italy, to work on a cruise missile program as I wanted to learn something new. The admiral asked someone to stay back at Christmas. I said “hell no”, but after pulling straws and losing, I had to stay and brief another three-star admiral on the project. This kickstarted a series of over 100 briefings, which ultimately led to me presenting to President Jimmy Carter about using satellites and data to program cruise missiles.

How: Take charge of your own career by volunteering to do new things. If something doesn’t go your way, get angry, get over it, and make the most of the opportunity (who knows, you may end up briefing the President of the United States).

Why: If you constantly push yourself, you have a better chance of managing your own career path.

Encourage people to challenge their superiors

What: In a submarine, most accidents occur when junior sailors assume the captain knows everything and keep quiet even if all the warning signs are there. Don’t be afraid to challenge the captain (i.e. we’re heading into a problem on the current trajectory) and make them at least reconsider the course.

How: Most people haven’t been managers when you promote them, so encourage them to speak up, take the time to develop their leadership skills and provide a safe space for feedback. Remember, as a leader, you are always training your successor.

Why: If you empower your employees, they will make you successful.

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